Title: By Which We Bear
Pairing/s: N/A (though brief mention of Arthur/Gwen)
Character/s: Merlin, Gwen
Summary: This isn’t the body of a mere servant her shaking fingers skim over. It is the body of a seasoned warrior, with scars that rival her husband’s own.
Word Count: 998
Author's Notes: I miss seeing Gwen and Merlin's friendship. :c *sigh*
It is by sheer accident - and her temporary inability to knock - that Gwen finds out.
Even though she now has servants at her beck and call, it doesn’t sit easy with her to command people that she has considered her friends for years. She would much rather do simple errands herself, which is how she has come to be bursting through the door of the physician’s quarters. “Gaius, could you--”
Though Merlin scrambles to pull down his shirt, it’s too late; she has seen the ugly bruising on his left shoulder and so much more. The breath catching in her throat, she crosses the expanse of the room, the hem of her dress swishing against the stone floor. “What‘s wrong?” she asks with unchecked concern, and when Merlin doesn’t answer, she turns an inquisitive gaze towards Gaius. “What is it?”
“It’s nothing, Gwen,” Merlin finally replies, laughing in that cheerful manner she has come to know and love. Whenever things looked bleak in the past, she has always counted on Merlin’s smile and humor to be a beacon through the darkness, even when he is struggling along with everyone else.
“You needed me, milady?” Gaius coughs, and she doesn’t miss the pointed glare the physician sends towards Merlin, who just shrugs sheepishly in return. She has been privy to these looks more often than they probably realize, as if they are sharing some secret that’s free for anyone to speculate on.
Gwen doesn’t focus on the empty feeling in her stomach for being excluded, nor how Gaius refers to her new title instead of her name, despite her insistence on the contrary. “It seems like one of the advisors has fallen ill, and Arthur was wondering if you could personally examine him?”
“I shall see to him right away.“ Gaius hastily gathers his medicine bag - spry despite his age - and then bids them leave. The silence left in his absence is deafening, and in the still that follows, Gwen takes Merlin in. While he’s attempting to remain relaxed in her presence, his posture is awkward and just plain wrong. He is akin to a run-down cart that is just one solid jolt away from breaking down completely.
“…Gwen?“ It’s his voice that tears her from her thoughts, and she quickly snaps to attention. The washcloth Gaius held minutes before is in her hands without her realizing it, and she jerks the fabric of his shirt up in one fluid motion. He flinches at the sudden action, but doesn’t pull away from her touch, his head hanging forward in meek compliance.
“Oh, Merlin,” she murmurs, having no other words for the sight displayed in front of her. The brief glance earlier hasn’t prepared her for the full horror of his afflictions; the fresh abrasion immediately draws her attention, the deep discoloration a sharp, biting contrast against the moonlit paleness of his skin. But it’s the older marks that have begun to fade that intrigue her more, the jagged lines that weave a disturbing tragedy on the pages of one’s skin that should only be used for light-hearted fare.
This isn’t the body of a mere servant her shaking fingers skim over. It is the body of a seasoned warrior, with scars that rival her husband’s own.
It takes a great amount of effort on Gwen’s part to maintain her composure, but her voice still cracks with her next question: “What happened?”
Merlin laughs once more, now a hollow, wretched noise. It twists something painfully inside her, and she wonders if he has been putting on a brave front all this time. The guilt for not even considering the possibility sooner rushes over her a moment later.
This is Merlin, this is her friend, and yet all she sees is a stranger who is hopelessly lost in this world.
But as quickly as it is disappears, the familiar persona she knows as cheeky and charismatic Merlin returns, and he turns to flash one of those smiles that crinkle at the corner of his eyes. It’s obvious he’s trying to comfort her, as if she’s the one who has been suffering alone. “You know how Arthur can be sometimes. I’m just glad the prat didn’t make me limp off the training field.”
That’s not the answer she is searching for, and they both know it, but she’ll grant him this one misdirection. “I should tell him to stop using you as a practice dummy,” she sighs, shaking her head at Arthur’s bull-headed antics.
The snort Merlin lets out is so typically him, it‘s reassuring. “He would never let me hear the end of it. ‘Having a girl fight your battles for you again, Merlin?’”
“It’s scary how well you can do that,” Gwen chuckles despite the seriousness of the situation, especially since she now has a clear view of his chest that has been disfigured at as well. “…All of these can’t be from Arthur though.”
There’s a moment of hesitation, his eyes watching intently as her hand hovers what appears to be an old burn. “Well, in a way they are. He’s not exactly the easiest person to protect, you know.”
Shame flushes Gwen‘s cheeks; she always thought Merlin‘s claims of serving Arthur, even at the cost of his own well-being, were highly exaggerated. But she can’t ignore the evidence that has been slapped in her face. “…You’re braver than any knight, and Arthur doesn’t even know.”
A strange expression falls across Merlin‘s face, his lips twitching into a melancholy grin. “Funny, you‘re not the first to say that.”
There’s no need to ask who was the first; the regret that floods his eyes afterwards says everything, and he’s embracing her sympathetically before her tears even fall. Suddenly, she’s mumbling the word sorry into his shoulder without truly knowing who she’s apologizing to, her ravaged sobs over past regrets roaring in her ears.
Even so, she still manages to hear him whisper, “…We all have our own scars to bear.”